Life Inside the Mirror: Reflections on the 2015 People of Color Conference

12/17/2015

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“We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future.”   –Franklin D. Roosevelt

Several of my friends had babies in the last year, and at the People of Color Conference this December I found myself wondering more than ever what sort of world they will grow up into.  I am struggling, as I did just after September 11th, with what it means to raise children in the United States, a question educators are grappling with as much as parents.  I wonder how we’ll make sure our children of color are safe.  I worry for immigrant children and the U.S.-born children of immigrants as they encounter threat and marginalization.  And I worry about whether schools can do enough to impact not just our students’ sense of safety and belonging inside our buildings, but also in the world outside our schoolhouses, where black boys are shot on their way to the store and the children of immigrants are told to go home to countries where their homes have been bombed and their lives are in danger.

Coming together with other concerned, conscientious educators every year is a lifeline for all of us in this work.  As the leaders of the Student Leadership Diversity Conference put it in their welcome message to students this year, the PoCC is like a booster shot for the soul.  The one year I missed the conference for financial reasons, I was downright suicidal by February.  We need this community; I need this community.  It reminds me that the shared world we work for is possible.

But as the challenges grow in our communities, so do my concerns and misgivings, particularly because the people benefiting from all this  fear and hatred don’t go to conferences like the PoCC .  This year, I’d like to share a few of my main take-aways, the mantras I’ll be hearing in the back of my mind as I facilitate the hard work with teachers trying to create change in their classrooms and schools in 2016 and beyond.

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1.          We have a responsibility to protect our African-American boys, and to teach them how to keep themselves safe in a society that fears them.  Several speakers this year explored the challenges of teaching black boys to keep themselves safe, things like keeping their hands out of their pockets and their hoods off, keeping their hands on the steering wheel when pulled over, not getting out of the car or speaking back or running away.  But living safely in the U.S. is not as simple as being polite to cops, particularly for people of color.  There’s a deeper problem in our society that requires action, not carefully calculated moves which suggest that our current reality is acceptable.  While we want our children to be careful, and to know that quick moves can get them killed, we don’t want them to give in to systematic racism and oppression.  That’s a hard line to walk; how does a young person grow up with a strong sense of self if he knows he has to act differently than his white counterparts?  How do make sure his safety doesn’t come at the detriment of his identity and sense of self worth?

Listening to Dr. Howard C. Stevenson’s recording of a conversation with his son about a recent police shooting, it was clear he had several goals: to help his son process what had happened, to help him understand that race was a factor, and to help him feel equipped to respond to these forms of oppression while simultaneously protecting himself from similar harm.  These conversations are not just important for African-American youth, either; today, anti-immigrant sentiment and Islamaphobia are increasingly rampant in our society, LGBTQ bullying continues, and gun control challenges mean that the haters have firepower at their disposal.  We need to keep all of our children safe in an increasingly volatile world.  This is not just the job of parents to have these conversations, either; it is a responsibility educators need to share and embrace as well.

2.         Children recognize differences and begin to act on social constructs of race and gender much earlier than we think.  To say I was stunned by the research Rosetta Lee shared on early childhood and when young kids develop a sense of race and gender would be an understatement, and the findings make me want to dig much deeper.  I remember noticing this with my older niece, when she announced one Christmas that she wanted a stationary bicycle with an interactive virtual course but couldn’t have one because it was a “toy for boys.”  I think she was about five—and when I dug, it turned out her impressions came from watching tv commercials and only seeing boys on bikes.  It also makes me remember a 2nd grader at Town School for Boys, who approached me to let me know he was black when I was visiting his class at the end of a project on Dr. Martin Luther King as a change maker.  (I gave him a huge appreciative smile and said, “Yes, you are!” He smiled back.)

We are holding such delicate identities in our hands, especially at an early age, and we have an incredible responsibility to do this well, to help our children see themselves in the world and their community, to help them define—and redefine—their identities as they grow.

3.          Poetry can help; communicating matters.  As a writer and former English teacher, I resonated with Sarah Kay’s closing keynote.  She reminded me of the power of poetry to help students process heavy issues of identity, both in and out of the classroom.  I used journals that way in my classroom, and I always allowed students to fold pages that got too personal to be shared with me, so that they knew they had a safe space to process sensitive topics.  That said, I also noticed that many students wanted to share what was most painful, that they even seemed to need an audience who could hear and understand them.  Over 19 years teaching Creative Writing, I was stunned by how often students shared their real, personal struggles under the guise of fiction and poetry, and I was able to help guide students to counselors and other support people once they’d “outed” their real feelings through a piece of creative writing.

The pace of our independent schools makes little room for creative self expression and reflection, yet the arts are where our students most often come to understand themselves and their place in the world.  We need to open up more space in our schedules for such expression, for students to grapple not just with math and history but with who they are and the kinds of people they want to be.

4.         We need to raise our children to stand up to discrimination even when it’s scary.  I remember speaking with a friend years ago, whose first son was born on September 12th, 2001.  I asked how she was feeling, about a month after his birth, about raising a child in 21st Century America.  Her reply was that the world clearly needed a lot more good people, so her charge was to make sure her son was one of them.

A student in my International Affinity Group talked about being afraid to push back when his school community made a poor choice, as it seemed inevitable that doing so would create more tension and conflict.  But the reality is that we can’t get to a better place without that tension and conflict, and leaning into discomfort will take us much further than avoiding the conversation. As Mahzarin Banaji made clear, the biases which put some in danger and others in power are deeply embedded in the human mind, impossible to change until we make them transparent.  It’s not easy work, but it’s some of the most important work we’ll ever do.

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5.         The assumption that race aligns with privilege does not always hold true for people with an international identity, however they define that.  I heard rumblings from most of the affinity groups about a graphic shared with all of us this year, called Journeys of Race & Culture: from Racial Inequality to Equity & Inclusion.  While it may have sparked some powerful conversation, it was particularly dissonant for most people in the international affinity group.  We found ourselves drawing distinctions which didn’t follow racial lines so much as ethnic ones; for example, as a semitic American, I resonated more with the lower half of the graphic, the experience defined as that of People of Color, even though my skin is white.  We found ourselves wanting to revise the headings—would we all have responded differently had it been separated into the experiences of “Dominant and Non-Dominant Cultures” instead of “Whites and People of Color?”

None of us intend to diminish what this chart might mean for African Americans, Latin Americans, Asian Americans, or the U.S.-born whites who need to do the work of unpacking their privilege.  I’m guessing the conversations triggered by the graphic were important and meaningful for most participants for whom inequity is an issue of race, and I recognize that this conference exists to serve their needs, not mine.  My comments are not meant to diminish what is unique about those experiences.  But subjugation happens as much on an ethnic level as a racial one, particularly outside of the United States, and issues like socio-economic opportunity and belonging to the dominant culture vs. the non-dominant group resonate more for many of us.

In fact, many educators in the international affinity group went from being part of a privileged, dominant class in their countries of origin, to suddenly being perceived as a minority in the U.S. because of race.  Those who can “pass” because of lighter skin have had it easier than those who can’t, and many of my colleagues talked about passing by keeping their mouths shut so they wouldn’t be “outed” by their accents.  Frankly, the threats to immigrants’ place in America are getting worse every day, particularly if one looks Arab or is a practicing Muslim.  Many of my colleagues expressed fear and a profound sense of exclusion and alienation, particularly over the last year, and several of those individuals are white immigrants, both with and without accents, who are watching as U.S. society turns its back on their endless contributions.

For us, the conversation needed to be about this, the life of the immigrant in the United States, and the graphic triggered a lot for us.  I’ll be the first to admit, however, that it also led to some very powerful conversations many of us needed to have about life as it’s experienced by international and “third-culture” individuals, a life which often vacillates between the lower and upper halves of the graphic, depending on where we are standing and how we are perceived. (For more on Third Culture Identities, see “So Where’s Home,” by Adrian Bautista; and Taiye Selasi’s TED Talk, “Don’t Ask Where I’m From, Ask Where I’m a Local.”)

6.          The Equity Imperative is more urgent now than ever.  The theme of the conference this year was The Equity Imperative, and I can’t begin to express how grateful I am to be part of a community so engaged in such profound dialogue about these topics.  What is even harder than dialogue is bringing our ideas into practice, and each year this conference leaves me with new tools and strategies for helping teachers walk the walk, not just talk the talk.  I am particularly grateful this year to a Mexican-American woman in my international session, who pointed out that she reframes every problem she faces in her community as an opportunity.  As a person who often gets caught up in cynicism and pessimism, I was reminded that optimistic coaching will allow me to reframe the conversation at many schools in more constructive directions.

I hope that every participant this year finds meaningful ways to bring conversations about equity to their communities, and will spark action through that dialogue.  Of all the challenges that face us as a human family, our ability to move from conversation to action is perhaps the most severe, to move past the mirror and let our self reflections turn into tangible solutions to all that ails us.  The urgency to do so grows more compelling every day.  It is our responsibility to teach and protect all children well, and I challenge all educators to find ways to implement our ideologies as good practice in our schoolhouses.

7.         There are still plenty of good people in the world, and we can help balance out the bad ones.  But our kids need to know how to recognize us amid the haters.  Rosetta Lee left me with a lot to think about when someone in her session on Old School Diversity asked how we prepare our children for dealing with the people who don’t understand or value who they are.  Her answer stayed in my mind throughout the conference.  How do we prepare our children for the haters?  We tell them they’ll encounter people who don’t know how to honor and love all that they are, but they’ll also encounter people who see them, appreciate them, and honor every nuance of their identities. Life is about learning to avoid the former and recognize the latter.  It’s about knowing how to build allies and networks with the people who get us and see our whole selves, and trying to educate the people who don’t.  And according to Gyasi Ross, it’s also about remembering that history matters, and that more of a diversity of experience needs to be honored in the retellings our children explore, so that every child sees his/her experiences reflected in the mirror.